Virginia Tech’s defense among nation’s elite going into Miami showdown

November 1, 2017

On Duke’s first play Saturday night, quarterback Daniel Jones faked a handoff and Virginia Tech’s Andrew Motuapuaka came unblocked after him. Jones slipped and Motuapuaka took him down for a 10-yard loss.

Going backward. The Blue Devils aren’t the only offense to experience that against the Hokies this year.

“It’s a good feeling from my end when you see your kids execute and you see them knowing exactly where they’re supposed to fit,” said longtime Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster. “You saw 11 guys chasing the ball. You saw 11 guys chasing it with a purpose. They knew their gap. They knew where their help was. Took good angles. That’s fun to see.”

Foster has liked what he’s seen for most of this season, as the No. 13 Hokies (7-1, 3-1 ACC) have emerged as one of the nation’s stingiest defenses going into Saturday night’s conference showdown at No. 9 Miami (7-0, 5-0).

They’re allowing a paltry 11.5 points per game, the second-fewest in college football behind No. 1 Alabama.

Tech also ranks ninth nationally in total defense, allowing 284.5 yards per game, and third in third-down defense.

“We always talk about working and grinding and grit, all those things,” said Galen Scott, the team’s assistant head coach and safeties coach. “It’s always going to be about that. You can see it, play by play, second by second, rep by rep. That blue-collar mentality, that lunch pail defense, I can see it firsthand.”

In his 29 years at Tech, the past 22 as coordinator, Foster’s unit has been dubbed the “lunch-pail defense,” a blue-collar bunch, often higher on achievements than accolades.

This year’s defense, the 58-year-old said, embodies that.

“This group, to me, is very much a lunch-pail group,” Foster said. “You’ve got Tremaine Edmunds as kind of the star power. Maybe Tim Settle gets some notoriety. But the guts of this defense are just kids that come to work every day. It’s just a no-name defense. Guys just come to work.”

Edmunds, a junior linebacker, leads Tech with 68 tackles and two forced fumbles. Settle, a sophomore defensive tackle, leads with 9.5 tackles for losses and is second with three sacks. Settle and senior Ricky Walker’s emergence have been critical for a defense that lost four starters from last year’s team, three coming on the defensive line.

That group allowed a respectable 22.8 points per game. This year’s unit has trimmed that number nearly in half.

For most of the season, the defense has set the tone early in ballgames. In five of the eight contests, the Hokies haven’t allowed a point in the first quarter. They’ve forced eight first-quarter three-and-outs, four turnovers and 20 punts.

They’ve allowed just 30 points in the opening periods of games this season, with 17 of them coming in the slow start at East Carolina, and 10 more against defending national champion Clemson.

“That’s kind of the thing about defense,” said Scott. “You want to be the aggressor. You want to be proactive and not reactive.”

The defense’s dominant capabilities were on full display early on Saturday against Duke. The Blue Devils’ first five offensive possessions produced a trio of three-and-outs and two turnovers.

Starts such as that send even accomplished offensive coaches into a harried mode of trying to find something that might work against the Hokies.

“They’re going to try to adjust and do something differently,” said Scott. “Because whatever they thought they could do or were trying to do early, wasn’t working. You can see that, for sure. You can see people scrambling if what they wanted to do the first time, second time, third time isn’t working.”

Perhaps most interestingly, unlike past great Tech defenses, this year’s unit has controlled games without racking up staggering sack totals or forcing frequent interceptions.

The Hokies are tied for sixth in the ACC with 19 sacks, a respectable number but not the sky-high totals the unit has sometimes put up. They have seven interceptions, tied for the sixth-most in the league.

But in the most vital category — points allowed — Tech is the clear leader, the only conference team to not have allowed 100 total points yet this season going into the matchup with the Hurricanes, one of the ACC’s top offensive teams.

And, in Foster’s eyes, there’s still ample room for improvement.

“As good as our stats and things have been, we’re still at the tip of the iceberg with some guys as far as where they can go,” Foster said. “You’re seeing Tim Settle improve every week but he’s just at the tip of the iceberg, just like Tremaine Edmunds or Trevon Hill or Reggie Floyd. That’s what’s exciting.”